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3-time collegiate wrestling champion barred from competing because of her gender

"Women wrestle women and men wrestle men. Period."

Marina Goocher after winning the 2018 national championship. CREDIT: Marina Goocher
Marina Goocher after winning the 2018 national championship. CREDIT: Marina Goocher

Earlier this month, Marina Goocher won her third consecutive collegiate title at the National Club Wrestling Association (NCWA) Championships in Texas.

Three-peating as champion is hard enough, but Goocher’s accomplishment is even more improbable thanks to NCWA regulations: the University of Michigan-Dearborn junior doesn’t even have a team to compete on during the regular season. That’s because UMD only has a men’s club wrestling team, and the NCWA will not allow her to compete against the men.

Instead, for most of the regular season, one of the best female wrestlers in the country is left to serve as a student manager for her school’s team, keeping statistics for the men as they compete.

“I love the sport and want to be a part of it,” Goocher told ThinkProgress. “It’s a shame when you really want to do something, but you’re being discriminated against.”

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If this all seems unfair, well, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), and Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) agree with you. The three organizations teamed up with Goocher last year to accuse the NCWA of gender discrimination.

“Wrestling is tough. So is building a wrestling program and leading it.”

“Women athletes are entitled to equivalent opportunities as men to participate in sport,” the organizations said in an open letter to the NCWA. “Ms. Goocher cannot be denied the ability to compete against male wrestlers in the regular season where there are no opportunities to compete against women in the Midwest.”

Goocher would, of course, be happy to compete against women. Unfortunately, UMD is located in the NCWA’s Great Lakes Regional Conference, which consists of 20 club teams, all of which are male; there are no women in her division to compete against. Without the ability to compete against the men, the only opportunity she has to compete at all in NCWA-sanctioned events is at the NCWA Women’s National Championships, when she is allowed to compete against women from other conferences. She has now won that event her freshman, sophomore, and junior years. She just wants the ability to compete during the regular season.

According to the NCWA, it’s completely up to her to make that happen.

“University of Michigan, Dearborn has more than 9,000 students from which Ms. Goocher can recruit teammates,” the NCWA said. “The NCWA helps young men and women become leaders. Wrestling is tough. So is building a wrestling program and leading it.”

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The NCWA’s statement isn’t just insulting to Goocher and her character, it’s illogical. For starters, the NWCA is not only insisting Goocher start a UMD women’s club team by herself, they seem to be suggesting she is responsible for recruiting competition at other schools in the conference as well. What good is a UMD women’s team if they still have no other team to compete against?

What’s more, one possible explanation for why Goocher is the only woman wrestler in her entire conference is that other women don’t see wrestling as an option for themselves. Having divisions devoted entirely to women’s sports is crucial to their growth and popularity. The best way to address that is by allowing women like Goocher to compete, on any stage possible. Increased visibility will help grow the sport to the point where a lack of competition for women isn’t even an issue anymore. You solve this problem by encouraging and celebrating talent, not by suppressing it.

When she arrived on campus, she was welcomed by the other men on the wrestling team, and by head coach Grant MacKenzie. But it didn’t take long for the NCWA to catch wind of Goocher’s enrollment, sending out a “Policy Clarification” to the coach stating, “The rule is simple. Women wrestle women, men wrestle men in practice and competition. Period.”

According to the letter sent to Coach MacKenzie in 2016, the NCWA’s rules and insurance policy “does not permit male vs. female competition,” and the organization has “developed two separate and distinct divisions for the purpose of providing women the opportunity to compete in wrestling at the college level while protecting athletes from injury or possible abuse.”

There is no evidence to support the claim that women wrestling against men in the proper weight classes are at any greater risk for injury or abuse. It’s an outdated and lazy excuse based on sexist stereotypes and beliefs, and it’s been abandoned by virtually all levels of the sport.

Goocher has wrestled since she was five years old, and she has almost always wrestled against the only competition that was available to her: the guys. In high school, Goocher won 80 percent of her matches and amassed 100 varsity wins, all against male competitors.

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At the collegiate level, NCAA rules stipulate that coed wrestling teams are allowed if women athletes do not have enough opportunities to compete separately from the men. The NCWA follows almost all NCAA guidelines, except that one.

Goocher didn’t seek out an NCAA scholarship for wrestling in college, instead deciding to go to UMD because of the location, her chosen major of mechanical engineering, and because of the school’s successful club wrestling program.

I’ve always wrestled against the guys, I never thought anyone would have a problem with it,” Goocher told ThinkProgress.

The NCWA has not taken the public accusations of gender discrimination well. Last November, it released a scathing open response to the lawsuit, calling the allegations “ill-informed and borderline defamatory.”

“Marina opened a door at Michigan-Dearborn and we hope other women follow her.”

It went on to attack Goocher, saying she “[turned] down opportunities to compete in the Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association,” and “at every opportunity to grow her program and expand her own opportunities within the NCWA’s structure, it seems as though Ms. Goocher has been content to do nothing, instead expecting the competition to come to her, and demanding other individuals do the hard work it takes to build a competitive team program.”

Goocher told ThinkProgress that despite her wrestling acumen, she’s not a very confrontational person. But when she read the NCWA’s response to the ACLU, she knew she had to keep fighting for the right to compete.

This is something that I’m going through now, but it’s not just me,” Goocher said. “Women’s wrestling is growing really fast, and I want to solve this problem so the girls that come after me don’t have to go through this.” 

Those around Goocher admire her determination. She wants to compete with her teammates her senior year, but more than that, she wants clear the path for other women.

“Marina is a leader,” Coach MacKenzie said. “She is a driven athlete who understands she is a pioneer in women’s collegiate wrestling in Michigan. Marina opened a door at Michigan-Dearborn and we hope other women follow her.”